The Philosophy of Big History

I attended the recent conference of the International Big History Association.  The association is oriented toward researching and teaching “Big History,” which aims (as their website says) to “understand the integrated history of the Cosmos, Earth, Life, and Humanity,” specifically by means of “the best available empirical evidence and scholarly methods.”  That opens up the field of history into a comprehensive and cross-disciplinary account of the entire 13.8 billion year history of our universe.

Big History is far from alone in its aim to articulate an integrated and evolutionary vision of matter, life, and humanity.  Multiple scholarly fields and schools of thought share the integrative aims of Big History (e.g., the universe story, the field of religion and ecology, integral theory, ecofeminism, complexity theory, posthumanities, process philosophy).  Big historians still have much to learn from those and other integrative and transdisciplinary sources of evolutionary knowledge. 

It was clear from the conference that many of the basic categories and underlying assumptions of Big History still remain to be thoroughly explicated.  This was evident not just in discussion among attendees but also in some of the presentations given by predominant contributors to Big History.  I’m thinking in particular of the talks given by David Christian and Cynthia Brown in a panel related to the question of the role of “meaning” in Big History.  Christian and Brown both admitted that they are not scholars of philosophy or religion, so their forays into those kinds of inquiry are only beginning.  The future of Big History will depend significantly upon the further development of those currently “amateur” (as Brown humbly said) efforts.  A failure to integrate methods and research from the humanities is a failure to develop a truly integrated understanding of matter, life, and humanity, and it is a failure to overcome the fragmented knowledge of the disciplinary silos that dominate academia.

Here are some of the problems that need further clarification or correction:

Christian’s discussion of religion consisted of ad hoc analysis that showed almost no knowledge of actual religious traditions.  He made a comment about how Big History has in common with religions the articulation of origin stories that provide mapping and guidance to human communities, and big history has the advantage of being the biggest of those mapping and guidance systems, since it encompasses the whole 13.8 billion year history of the universe.  However, big history doesn’t have the biggest mapping-guidance systems.  That really begs the question of what we mean when we say “big.”  If you mean big in the sense of the most comprehensive knowledge, then religions definitely have bigger mapping-guidance systems, since they more successfully integrate multiple ways of knowing (emotional, aesthetic, cognitive, verbal, somatic, interpersonal, and moral).  Even if you mean big only in the sense of physically large (a rather small sense of “big”), some religions are still bigger than big history.  For example, the measure of time in Hinduism (which is to some extend shared with Jain and Buddhist traditions) ranges from microseconds to trillions of years, and that is only for one cycle of the universe’s birth, development, and destruction.  Their cosmology resembles the Stoic notion of a cyclical universe (i.e., ekpyrotic universe theory).  Each cycle lasts a few hundred trillion years.  That’s much bigger than the quantitative extensity of the bigness of big history.

Similarly, Christian said that science is more detailed and accurate than religions.  Again, that’s just not true, unless you’re simply presupposing the definition of detail and accuracy.  If you mean quantitative detail/accuracy, Christian is right.  But if you mean qualitative detail/accuracy, than he is wrong.  Religions have much more detailed and accurate accounts than does Big History of the qualitative, intensive, and semiotic dynamics of matter, life, and humanity.  We’ll have to leave aside the question as to whether the science-religion debate presupposes a false dichotomy by reifying a singular “science” and singular “religion” that do not in fact exist.

Christian defined meaning as mapping and guidance, in which case there is meaning in the universe not only for humans but for all things that have mapping-guidance systems, which for Christian seems to extend only to animals or maybe all living things.  That is an inaccurate and undetailed account of meaning, one that does not follow or even address philosophical methodologies for analyzing semiotics, semantics, experience, and agency.  Phenomenology, hermeneutics, radical empiricism, biosemiotics, process thought, new materialism, and feminist theory are all completely overlooked.

Christian considers ethics to be the product of human communities, thereby failing to communicate a Darwinian perspective on evolution.  For Darwin, the social “sentiments” (via Smith and Hume) that constitute ethics are present in varying degrees throughout the evolution of life.  Maybe only humans have morals or practice ethical inquiry, but Christian should at least concede germinal expressions of ethics in nonhuman organisms.  Christian needs to look at cognitive ethology, biosemiotics, and the ethical theory of moral sentiments developed through Smith, Hume, Darwin and Leopold.

Christian did briefly mention Hume, but not his ethics of sentiments.  He only discussed the is-ought problem in reference to the naturalistic fallacy.  There does seem to be a problem with the naturalistic fallacy in the account of value in Big History, but the real problem is another logical fallacy: petitio principii (assuming the initial point; begging the question).  For example, Christian said there is no agency in nonhumans, and his reasoning was basically this: I can’t find agency because agency is the something that can’t be found from the outside.  Christian presupposed a dichotomy between quantitative exteriority and qualitative interiority (respectively, Locke’s primary and secondary qualities).  More question-beginning came from Brown, who proposes a naturalist position that presupposed rather than methodically disclosed a concept of nature as a collection of inherently meaningless objects.  Brown rejected the notion of materialism (the position for which only energy/matter is real) in favor of naturalism (the position for which only nature is real, so that something other than energy/matter could exist, but only if it is still natural).  Supposedly her empirical, methodological naturalism opens the door to meaning in the universe in a way materialism doesn’t (she clearly hadn’t heard of the new materialism), but for some reason she thinks that the only way to account for natural meaning is to say that humans generate it, otherwise she thinks it is supernatural.  Morality, purpose, and personhood are all supernatural to her, unless they exist in humans, in which case she can posit their existence.  Her naturalism is only methodological, which means that individuals are free to make their own metaphysical conclusions.  This leads to another problem: what is metaphysics?

Brown argued that she wasn’t doing metaphysics, sounding a lot like a positivist, unaware that she was presupposing metaphysical claims by attempting to abstain from them.  She misidentified metaphysics with supernaturalism (an unfortunate attempt to define metaphysics by defining the parts of the word and then adding them up, like defining conspiracy as any event wherein multiple things breathe together).  In short, she advocated a reductionistic methodology that would allow the students to make their own conclusions about whether there is anything other than quantitative extension in the universe.  Basically, that attitude propagates a relativistic multiculturalism and a reductionistic account of a mechanistic nature.

Brown defended herself against the charge of reductionism, saying that Big History does not reduce complex systems to simple systems but recognizing that complexity needs to be addressed on its own terms.  It’s good that Big History doesn’t reduce complex denumerable sets to simple denumerable sets, but that’s only a small part of reductionism.  The reductionism that Brown, Christian, and other big historians are committing is the reduction of nonhuman meaning and agency to epiphenomena of a mechanistic nature or phenomena of human projections.

Brown said that Big History “puts together what we think we know.” That sounds nice, but it presupposes a reductionistic definition of knowledge and fails to recognize the exclusivity of the “we” that knows, a white and academic “we” that does not include people from indigenous communities or marginalized or oppressed people, whose knowledge is often quite distinct from the scientific knowledge of supposedly disinterested observers.  Who “we” are and what we “know” is much more complex and contested than the scholars of Big History understand.

At the end of the day, the problem is not just about how big your history is.  The problem is how you use that history, how the knowledge is produced and distributed.  It’s not just the size of your history that matters; it’s what you do with it…not the size of the boat, it’s the motion of the ocean.  That’s not only a joke: in a civilization suffering immensely from the consequences of an obsession with economic growth, (neo)colonialism, and progress, great caution should be taken before adopting an approach to history concerned primarily with being big.

13 thoughts on “The Philosophy of Big History

  1. “Religions” don’t/can’t have anything as they are figures of speech and not agents in the world, as for “germinal expressions” how far does one extend the mere qualities of existing before one has erased all differences that make a difference?

    1. Right, “religion(s)” and “science(s)” don’t exist as agents in the world, and to treat them as such is to reify figures of speech. That’s what I alluded to at the end of point 1. Nonetheless, practitioners of Vedic rituals or Dzogchen do experience spatio-temporal scales that are far bigger than big historians know.

      I’m guessing it would take quite a lot to erase “all differences that make a difference.” That’s not an issue here though. It’s not like biosemioticians, cognitive ethologists, and flat ontologists are arguing that snails perform ethical deliberations using symbolic consciousness and reflexive self-awareness. Positing some capacity for evaluative agency and discernment in nonhumans in no way erases differences that make humans uniquely different. Likewise, positing sweetness in apples doesn’t erase the differentiating differences between apples and oranges, which are otherwise considered incomparable.

  2. “Big historians still have much to learn from those and other integrative and transdisciplinary sources of evolutionary knowledge.”

    So, share your knowledge with them and make Big History better.

    1. Thanks, Yvonne. I try to share my knowledge with Big History scholars, although it’s largely up to them what other philosophical perspectives they include in their research. I’m also part of the International Big History Association. In their recent elections, I made sure to vote for people who had more inclusive and diverse visions of the aim and scope of Big History.

  3. Hi Sam, that’s good to know. I have also recently joined the IBHA. It’s been less than a year that I found out about Big History and I am still very much studying it. In Germany, where I am from, there don’t seem to be many people who know this. I work as a translator and teach English to adults in an adult education centre, so I am not part of the academia.

    1. That’s great, Yvonne. I hope you enjoy participating in the IBHA. It’s so important for people to bring these ideas out of academic contexts and into the real world. Maybe our paths will cross at an IBHA event some time in the future.

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